Posted by Joseph Adamson - January 25, 2010


Responding to Peter Yan’s comment in Russell Perkin’s earlier post

Yes, Frye cites the Nazi term Zweckwissenschaft, which means target-knowledge; the Nazis may have invented it, but it is a term very relevant to what has been going on in universities for some time now.

For example, in my faculty we are constantly reminded that the best way to get funding is to link your research in some way to the “purposive” areas of research in the university, such as areas of medical research, neuro-science, business. So we end up, for example, with funding in our faculty for a program in music and neuro-science. This is one reason, I think, for the success of cultural studies: it is a discipline that applies tenets of existing social sciences such as sociology to the contemporary cultural scene and thus it presents itself in a very direct and obvious way as socially “relevant.” In addition, courses on popular media, music, and visual culture fill the seats. You may not be as relevant as the medical and business schools, but you can be forgiven if you draw in students.

The seductiveness of relevance also explains the allure of evo-criticism, neuro-criticism, cognitive criticism: the more scientific you are the more relevant you can claim to be. This is not of course in any way what Frye meant by making literary criticism scientific. It is, in fact, a flagrant instance of what he inveighed against in Anatomy, the turning of literary criticism to other disciplines for its authority.

Literary scholars feel the pressure to prove their usefulness, and, unfortunately, the strong argument that Frye makes about the inherently prophetic and counter-cultural authority of literature and the arts in society–the social context of literary criticism he discusses in The Critical Path–is not what most university administrators have in mind. They are, as their institutions dictate, mostly “pigs,” in ) Rohan Maitzen’s (and Mill’s) sense of the word.

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  1. Robert D. Denham says:

    Frye on Zweckwissenschaft

    One main theme of Part Three is: the N-S axis of concern is revolutionary, & the W-E one is liberal, not speculative, but simply broadening & enlarging. Revolutionary characteristics are: the enforced loyalty of a minority group (Jews, early Christians); belief in a unique historical revelation; resistance to “revisionism”; establishment of a rigorous canon of myth; rejection of knowledge for its own sake (demand for relevance or Zweckwissenschaft). Judaism was the only revolutionary monotheism produced in the ancient world, and Christianity inherited the characteristics that made Tacitus scream & Marcus Aurelius talk about their parataxis. (The “Third Book” Notebooks, Notebook 12, par. 304)

    A certain amount of contemporary agitation seems to be beating the track of the “think with your blood” exhortations of the Nazis a generation ago, for whom also “relevance” (Zweckwissenschaft, u.s.w.) was a constant watchword. Such agitation aims, consciously or unconsciously, at a closed myth of concern, which is thought of as already containing all the essential answers, at least potentially, so that it contains the power of veto over scholarship and imagination. Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance,” that concerned issues have a right and a wrong side, and that those who are simply right need not bother tolerating those who are merely wrong, is typical of the kind of hysteria that an age like ours throws up. That age is so precariously balanced, however, that a closed myth can only maintain a static tyranny until it is blown to pieces, either externally in war or internally through the explosion of what it tries to suppress. (The Critical Path, 155)

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